(Apart from a spoiler for something that happens within the first couple of chapters in the first book, I’ve tried as much as I can to avoid spoilers in this review, because I really hope you’ll read these books).
Most of my February was swallowed up in reading this classic historical fiction series, which I had somehow managed to miss until now. Having heard several people rave about how great the Lymond Chronicles were, I decided to give them a try. I figured that with the sixth and last book having come out over 40 years ago and the author being safely dead, it would be a great series to read because it is definitively finished. I wanted to avoid the risk of a Game-of-Thrones-like scenario where I read faster than the author can write and end up impatiently waiting for the next book. Having read through these six chunky novels in less than a month, I now find myself very sorry Dorothy Dunnett is dead. While the series comes to an absolutely satisfying conclusion, if she were still alive there’d always be the hope that she might write a sequel, and the thought that there’ll never be another book about Francis Crawford of Lymond is a pretty hard thing to live with.
As I was warned, these books are absolutely fan-freakin’-tastic. They follow the adventures of a sixteenth-century Scottish nobleman, the above-mentioned Francis Crawford (usually just known as Lymond), younger son of a titled family, in the turbulent years when Mary, Queen of Scots was a child being raised in France while the crown of England was passing in rapid succession through each of Henry VIII’s children (the series ends with Elizabeth I’s accession to the English throne). Conflict between Scotland and her unfriendly neighbour to the south forms the setting of the first book, The Game of Kings, and remains a constant concern. But the scope of these books, which cover a period of a little over ten years, ranges far beyond the British Isles. Lymond is sometimes a mercenary, sometimes a spy, sometimes a courtier, and always in trouble. His travels take him to France, to Malta, to Turkey and to Russia as well as to England, with stops back home in Scotland throughout the series. Dunnett’s detailed historical research shines through as she brings to life scenes from a far wider variety of countries than readers usually get to visit in the standard Tudor/Elizabethan historical novels. Yes, interesting things were happening in places far from Britain, and if you travel with Lymond, you’ll be plunged right into the middle of them.
You’ll also travel in the company of one of the most fascinating, infuriating heroes in any book I’ve ever read. Lymond is both hero and anti-hero. He bursts into the first book as an outlaw determined to clear his name of the various crimes of which he’s accused, and starts his campaign in a not particularly promising way by attacking his family castle, shooting an innocent (female) bystander, and then setting fire to the castle while his mother (not to mention numerous other people) is inside. At this point readers can be forgiven for thinking, “Wait … is this the guy we’re supposed to be rooting for?”
Lymond does a lot of unpleasant things, and not just in the first few chapters — throughout the whole series. It’s safe to say that most of the awful things he does are eventually revealed to be: a) not as awful as they originally seemed, b) totally justified, or c) actually a complete misdirection. But there is a d) category of things he does that are still kind of unforgiveable, just because he’s a complicated guy living in complicated times.
And wow, is he ever complicated. Still a very young man when the series begins, Francis Crawford of Lymond is good at everything — he’s a brilliant soldier and military strategist, a formidable athlete, a gifted musician, a widely-read and erudite man who speaks seven or eight languages and can quote poetry and toss off sarcastic comments in all of them. He’s smart, he’s accomplished, he’s funny — but of course he’s also tortured by inner demons, and the shadows that haunt him only get darker as the series goes on. Dorothy Dunnett long predates George R.R. Martin in her willingness not only to kill off key characters, but to allow the characters who survive to suffer unspeakable torments. And nobody suffers more than Lymond.
There’s no doubt that this series could be annoying, with a hero like Lymond. He’s a bundle of literary tropes — the brilliant, gifted man who’s effortlessly good at everything, yet is a sensitive and tormented soul inside. And as for the cliche that all he needs is the love of a good woman — well, that’s rarely been explored more thoroughly than it is in this series. What makes Lymond himself so much more than a bag of stereotypes is just that Dunnett writes so well. Instead of making her hero/antihero seem like a worn-out cliche, she makes him seem like the original that all the other cliches (even those written earlier!) were based on. It’s easy to spot tropes in the Lymond books, yet somehow, they come across as complete originals, as does the main character himself.
That’s not to say the books are perfect, or that every reader will love them. I found The Game of Kings very hard to get into for the first couple of hundred pages: Dunnett’s writing is dense, layered, thick with allusions (and no pandering to the reader with explanations, translations or footnotes!). Things often happen that aren’t at all clear to the reader at the time, but will be explained later, if you can just hang on for three hundred pages. By the end of the first book I was well and truly hooked, but it wasn’t till partway through the second book, Queen’s Play (Lymond in France! And in disguise! And in mortal peril!) that I began to fully trust Dunnett and believe that everything I was confused about would eventually be explained to me. These books reward patience and careful reading; they are a swashbuckling adventure series for bookworms and people who get drunk on words. While there were passages in each book that moved slowly, weighted down by pages of loving description, there were also places in every book (usually near the end) when I could not go to sleep until I’d stayed awake, heart pounding, to turn the last page and see how things worked out.
Lymond is a great character, and he’s supported by a cast of equally great, vividly delineated characters — some real people from history, and lots of people as fictional as Lymond himself who move through the real historical events. There’s one major plot thread that runs through the books that I didn’t care for, and while the three characters associated with that storyline (Jerrott, Marthe and the Dame de Doubtance) are fan favourites, I wouldn’t have minded if they were all neatly excised from the story (well, except for one rather crucial scene in which one of them is absolutely necessary to the plot). But there’s such a rich tapestry of people and places in these six books that everyone will have favourites. For me, Lymond’s brother and his mother and especially the woman who becomes his love interest (I won’t spoil you even so far as to breathe her name) are just as compelling as the hero himself, and I missed them all like old friends when I finally finished the last page of Checkmate, the final book.
It’s also a huge testimony to Dunnett’s skill as a writer that I never, right up to the final pages of the last book, felt that a happy or even a peaceful ending was assured. This is no cliche romance where you know from the moment the hero and heroine first exchange smoldering glances, that they’ll eventually end up together. This is a story told by a writer who, as I said, is willing to put her characters through tests so severe, and hurt them so thoroughly, that you genuinely wonder if these conflicts will ever be worked out. Right up to the last pages of the last book my heart was in my throat, wondering if Lymond would even make it to the end safely — and that’s a tremendous tribute to a writer, if she can make you not only care about the characters like they were real people, but also allow them to be at much at risk as real people are (especially real people living in the violent, blood-drenched world these characters inhabit). No-one is safe, no matter how important to the story they are, or how close to the last page you might be.
What first convinced me to read the Lymond books (other than just hearing that they were a really well-written series of historical novels) was the testimony of a few readers I met online who compared them to Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels, which, as you know, are among my favourite books in the world. Sayers’ books were written forty years earlier but set centuries later, and the mileu of 1920s and ‘3os England is obviously very different from that of Renaissance Europe. But the parallels between Lymond and Lord Peter are striking enough to make me wonder if Dunnett had read Sayers and consciously or unconsciously tried to create the same kind of character in a different time and place. Lymond shares Lord Peter’s linguistic skill, athletic ability, musical talent and love for allusions and quotations, as well as both men being the golden-haired younger sons of noblemen (with stolid, serious older brothers who hold the title and disapprove of their younger brothers’ escapades). Both, despite their skills, are considered not quite respectable; both men have deep insecurities and fears that they keep hidden most of the time; both have adoring mothers who hide steel-trap minds behind a stream of daffy-sounding conversation. Even the scene where Lymond finally (finally!) falls in love will strike some echoes with readers of Sayers’ Gaudy Night. And both series prove that you can take every literary cliche –including that of the brilliant, gifted, tormented man who really just needs to be loved — and, if you’re a good enough writer, lift it above the level of cliche into a shining creation that feels absolutely unique.
If you’re convinced by this review to pick up The Game of Kings and give it a try, be patient with the book. Dunnett’s writing takes a while to reel you in, but if she does hook you, you’ll be hooked hard and probably find yourself coming back, as I plan to do, for many re-reads. This is simply a fabulous series.